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Moscow Field Trip | Master Information Design
4 - 9 april 2019 

Text and images by Toon Koehorst

It was the late and slightly intoxicated encounter outside Imagine Cafe on Pokrovka street that maybe was the most revealing. A stout but friendly Russian was amicably begging for a cigarette whilst criticising his president. His rousing agitation was stopped however by the slightly off-hand question of who he would like as a leader instead. Stunned before turning around and leaving us, he made us wonder. The impossibility in his mind of an alternative was tangible. This in a city that is perhaps one of the most vivid living testaments to radical change of the last 100 years. 

For over a year the idea developed between the students and the tutors of the Master Information Design to travel to Moscow for an excursion. At first an almost jokey assertion that to better understand information as a phenomenon it might be worth it to look at its counter-point: disinformation and where better to do this than in the capital of Russia. Home of Information Warfare, the Fancy- & Cozy Bears and a doctrine about political communication that wants to convince you that objective truth itself is a lie. 

For the format we decided to have a long run-up of research and then go for a short and intense burst of five days filled with visits to the widest possible range of sites and places. The actual visit would then act as a sort of litmus-test for all the preconceptions we held. For practically all students and tutors this was the first real encounter with the country that is as much part of Europe as it is its bogey man.

Our department deals a lot with systems. Technological, cultural, systems of representation, systems of hierarchy. So naturally this is where the process of gathering information about Moscow started. This quite naturally resulted in the recognition of four distinct periods of alternative societal forms that still had traces left in the city. 

The Pre-revolutionary Russia of the tsarist empire, the revolutionary years of the avant-garde, the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union and finally the post-communist capitalist system that started in 1991. A group of students, Camila Kennedy, Sofia Bresciani and Angelina Stavela took it upon themselves to put the program together in the form of a printed map and a schedule. Which were really quite practical as it took a while to purchase local sim-cards. As much as anything it were the absurd roaming charges that made it tangible that we were outside of the EU.

We were prepared and accompanied to Moscow by art historian Boris Staal, who recently studied and lived in Moscow and introduced us to the local scene with visits to Meganon Architecture, the Strelka Institut and a living room collection of Russian urban culture. It showed the vibrant state of this city in the middle of regaining its role as a global cultural epicenter. Another aspect we were keen to explore is how the totalitarian state propaganda is translated into public monuments and museums and specifically exhibition design. Our visits to the grandiose Victory Museum, the Cosmonautic Museum and the VDNKH, the all-Russian expo terrain were delightful masterclasses in non too subtle expression and scale.

The Russian Avantgarde – the art and architecture movement that happened to come to the fore in the early days of Bolshevik Russia – had a special interest to us. What happens if society is so radically overturned that your radical artistic position is suddenly backed by the power of a state looking for a new identity. In preparation of our trip we invited slavist and expert of Russian art history Sjeng Scheijen for a lecture and a short debate around his recent book on the Russian Avantgarde. Through generous help from the Dutch Embassy a small group of us had the privilege to visit the fascinating Melnikov House and the Narkomfin Building. Icons of avant-garde architecture in their own right, but also both in interesting states at the moment. The Melnikov house is under permanent threat of demolition while the Narkomfin is currently turned into luxury apartments. 

We also got the chance to visit storage facilities and the map room of the Russian State library, better know as the Lenin Library. Practically next to the Kremlin, it houses all Russian publications but started with random collections of noble book collectors in the empire period. This enabled us to have a continuous overview of Russian cartography from before Peter the Great all up to the modern period. 

But to offset all of this there was also a night program that was less systematic but fervently curated by the students. A typical night would start of in a North Korean restaurant (Thanks June) then maybe a Karaoke bar, Club Propaganda next and then steadily progress deep into the morning and into ever more obscure places. It was there that chance encounters match and elude the scripted experiences of the day. 🌷

Moscow escaped easy conclusions on all the themes that came up. The city is as vast as the range of different cultural positions it contains. Around every corner, in every conversation there seemed to be a reminder of the ingenuity of people trying to find a place to work and carve out their own position. It is striking to see how – in the midst of all these systems – people in all kinds of places have always succeeded in retaining their individuality. Proof of this can be found in the unique work of the avantgardists Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitzky, and Melnikov, more recent artists and architects like such as Lev Kerbel, Mikhail Barshch, and the contemporary work done by Meganon.

At the same time most designs and architecture show serious deprecation of quality over time. Grand gestures are, sometimes intentionally but usually by lack of attention, undermined by new additions. All the traces of what came before are still there, very present but feel sort of papered over by carelessness. This makes for an impression of brutal newness. Despite Russia’s reputation for being utterly nostalgic, Moscow might well be the least melancholic city in Europe today.


Tutors: Frans Bevers, Maurits de Bruijn, Henrik van Leeuwen, Arthur Roeloffzen and Toon Koehorst

Students: Ryan Baker, Sofia Bresciani, Sergi Casero, Anna Oberthaler, Matus Solcany, Angeliki Stavela, Georgia Spyropoulou, Angeliki Tziafeta, Anna Lyn Wolf, Nejma Boussaid, Wibke Bramesfeld, Domitille Debret, Lucas Dubois, Camila Kennedy, Yunwei Cen, Jiyoun Park, Julie Patard, Julian Peschel, Papon Sirimai, Niek van Sleeuwen, Kirsten Spruit, Goeun Park

Thanks to: Boris Staal, Jantien Roozenburg, Olga Ginkruk, Sjeng Scheijen, Wendel ten Arve, Gert Staal

Published: 22-May-2019 15:00


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    Photography by Toon Koehorst